Ebb & flow. From desk to beach: my working week.
I’m fascinated by other people’s work lives. I’m interested in what people do and why they do it. But I’m also interested in how they do it.
So I was pleased to stumble upon the #weeknotes hashtag and discover people have been posting diaries of their working week online (here’s one from Louise Morgan, who manages the publishing team in the House of Lords Journal Office; here’s another from Kit Collingwood, who works in UK digital government).
My own working week has changed hugely since starting my career in the early 90s. Twenty years ago, ‘work’ was a place I traveled to. I’d be at my desk by 9. Ready to kick off the week with a one-to-one ‘Monday morning routine’ (for that’s what the meeting was called) with the CEO at 09:30, and then I’d run my own team meeting at 10am.
Whilst I never knew what the week would throw at me, it still had a routine. There would be meetings to travel to, lunches to attend, but generally my working week was about presenteeism — being in the office from 9–6 five days a week.
And whilst that was twenty years ago, of course this is how most people work in 2017. You ‘go to work’ — a journey to a building to perform a role that your employer pays you for.
But I ditched that model eighteen years ago:
I don’t GO to work, I AM my office.
Curious to see what my working week actually looks like, I decided to write up my own weeknotes from one week in July 2017. I’m used to telling stories about other people’s work lives (writing books and articles on work and business), but not so used to sharing my own story. Here’s my diary:
It feels good to be liberated from the routine of a Monday morning meeting circa 1997. These days I’m self-managed. So I choose how I start the week. This morning I’m working at home. I like to have a walk to work, So before I get started I take my nine year old to school.
I’m spending this morning preparing for the month ahead. There’s a call with Jayne ahead of our session next week. A chat to Judith ahead of a storytelling project that kicks off on Wednesday.
My home is a 50 minute train ride from London. By 2pm I’m in Endell Street, Covent Garden. The sun is shining and it’s time to meet Justine. Justine wants me to help her figure out where she goes next in her career, and I’ve designed a three hour ‘walk and talk’ to come up with some answers. I have a bunch of questions to ask her along the way, written on a pack of coloured cards in my pocket.
We start at Seven Dials, where seven small streets converge, which acts as a reminder that we often have multiple paths in life. We walk up to Fitzroy Square, back through Charlotte Place and stop for coffee at Lantana. We make our way through the back streets of Soho and at 5pm are back where we started, the obelisk of Seven Dials ahead of us like a beacon, a landmark to head towards.
5pm at Seven Dials, I meet up with Simon. Simon wants to take a photo of me for his project, where he’s taking 100 portraits in 100 days. We head to Phoenix Garden, a wonderful space that feels like a secret garden in the heart of the West End, just thirty seconds from the traffic fumes of Charing Cross Road.
I catch the 6.32 train back to the coast. I’ve been off the grid for a few hours, so the 50 minute journey is a good opportunity to catch-up on emails. I’m back home for 7.30. As I walk over the bridge at the railway station near my home, the tide is in. It feels too cold for a swim. Hopefully tomorrow.
It’s 09:30 on a Tuesday morning and I feel very lucky. Very lucky indeed. I’ve done an hour of work. Now I’m swimming in the Thames estuary. Some people go to the gym or run to work, this is how I roll. I live two minutes from the beach. You can only swim while the water is high so you have to take your chances. You have to chase the tide. Which is why I’m down here at 09:30.
People talk about work/ life balance. For me that’s the wrong word. It’s about work/ life integration, segueing from work to play to work. I’ll admit those segues aren’t always easy, but they’re worth it.
10.15 and I’m back at a space where I do some of my best work: my dining table. Fuelled by fresh coffee from my AeroPress and Lauren Laverne’s radio show on 6Music, the rest of the morning is about getting my head down. There are client action plans to create and preparations for a storytelling field trip.
After lunch I need a change of scenery so I disappear to my work space in the attic. It’s a different rhythm up here. Today it’s about ploughing through my to-do list, ticking things off.
Before I know it, it’s 5pm and my wife and I are doing what we call a “hot-seat changeover” as it’s time for me to take charge of the kids. These changeovers can be hairy. It’s a five second transition from work to family. At times like this I wish I had a traditional commute home, to have the time to un-wind. This way you hit the ground running. My wife is off to a school governors’ conference and I’m driving my sons and a friend along the seafront to their cubs’ meeting. Once we’ve dropped them off, my eldest son and I get the chance for a walk (and a talk) along the beach. Back home at 7pm and while he’s in the bath, I relax on the sofa for ten minutes looking at Twitter and Instagram.
The alarm goes off at 06:00. Today I’m on the 07:16 train to London, and then it’s on to Wales.
I’m catching the 09:15 train from Paddington to Cardiff. First I’ve got just enough time to walk around the corner from Paddington station to Kioskafé for a quick coffee before I head west. Of course there are railway station coffee shops, but i care about the quality of my coffee. So I allow enough time for a detour to this outpost of the Monocle magazine.
On the train to Wales, I listen to a podcast from NPR’s “How I Built This”. This edition features Miguel McKelvey and his journey from founding a Brooklyn work space to the multi billion dollar WeWork. I love startup stories. That’s what I’m doing today, off on a field trip to visit a new client, to help tell their story. As I look out of the train window I have a real sense of excitement about getting started.
Arriving at Cardiff station, there’s just time for my second coffee of the day before. This time I’ve used Twitter to ask for recommendations of local coffee shops so head to Uncommon Ground (thanks for the tip Marc).
And then I’m at my client’s offices for five hours of back to back sessions meeting the team. It’s great to spend time with a client who gets me, where we share the same values. The energetic founder of the business is Michael. We have both spoken at The Do Lectures — so that’s a good start on chemistry.
When I’m working with an organisation, there are three stages to my storytelling projects. The first is the exploration and intelligence gathering, unearthing the stories. Next comes the insights, connecting the dots. The last stage is creation, writing it all up. Today is stage one. I enjoy this part. That sense of the new, meeting new people, asking questions that haven’t been posed before, being curious, having an open mind.
I’m away in time for the 17:56 train from Cardiff. There’s work to do. But I never work too hard on the return leg of a trip: there’ll be time to watch some BBC downloads and drink that mini bottle of wine I picked up at M&S.
It’s a nine hour return trip to Cardiff but I could never have done today by Skype or phone. It wouldn’t have been the same. Sometimes, you’ve just got to be there in person.
Unfortunately there are major delays on both legs of my train journey home, and I don’t get home til past midnight, two and a half hours later than planned.
I’m shattered after that long day. And glad I don’t have an early start.
After a late-ish breakfast I’m back at my table at home, writing up my field notes from Cardiff.
I’m back to London on the 12:56 train with time for a pit-stop at the Tower Hill outpost of the wonderful Citizen M Hotel for coffee, aircon and a copy of the Financial Times. It’s a scorcher outside, so it’s great to cool down before I go underground.
I emerge from the tube at Westminster to meet Kathryn. She’s a busy woman, so the most effective way for a catch-up is to walk with her to her next meeting. The streets are hot and full of tourists so we try and find shade. Once we’re in Soho we slow down, take the side streets and meander through Soho Square. There’s twenty minutes before her meeting and we’re feeling thirsty. After grabbing some water, we take a table in the shade outside Quo Vadis and order a glass of champagne and an Aperol Spritz. The perfect way to finish our catch-up.
Today I’m pleased that I have no trains to catch. I walk my kids to school and by 9:00 I am in my favourite local coffee shop Barlow & Fields planning some coaching sessions for next week. The music is loud, the coffee is good, and there are plenty of familiar faces to smile to and chat to. Today’s got that Friday rhythm.
Today I’m chasing the tide again, with a perfectly timed lunchtime swim. As I plough underwater, here where the Thames meets the North Sea, I am totally unshackled. And it feels good.
Out of the water, my to-do list is calling, I’m back home for a bagel and to prepare for a 2pm call. Today I’m on picking-up-kids duty, so at 3pm I draw a line in the sand and swap to-do lists for the school run.
At 7pm with the kids fed and watered, I sit in the garden and reflect on the week. I see the patterns in my work life and how they match the ebb and flow of the estuary tides at the bottom of my road. It’s a path I’ve chosen. For the last 18 years this has been my life. It’s not always seaside swims and alfresco Soho drinks. Of course, it’s rarely easy: the ups and downs, the segues from work to play, the unpredictability. What I see is a life that needs careful planning, focus, will-power and determination.
Juggling projects, wearing different hats, working from multiple spaces, pausing for estuary swims, segueing from work to family – with absolutely no routine in sight – this is me ‘at work’, this is how I roll. And it feels good.